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We're Stronger Than We Think

During gym class in elementary school, Oksana Akhmedova, a graduate from the HSE Faculty of Law, was part of a special group for physically weak children. But this didn't stop her from running an 86-kilometer trail marathon last year that took nearly 15 hours. How does one find the motivation to change, and is this even a question of motivation? Do we always know our own limits? As we start counting down to the New Year, when people often make resolutions to live a better life, Oksana tells us how we can truly achieve our goals. 

Do I Like Running? 

When people ask me whether or not I enjoy running, I’m not always able to give a clear answer. I really loved running when I was starting out, and I always wanted to do it. Now I train every day and run even when I don’t want to. When I want to eat, sleep, or go to the movies with my friends, but I have plans to train, I pick exercise.

It feels like I learn more about myself every time the starter pistol sounds – both my stronger and weaker points. I really learned a lot about myself at the last trail marathon (trail running is when you run through rough terrain, often at an incline). I ran 86 kilometres through the Italian Apennine Mountains, which took 14 hours and 44 minutes. I was alone pretty much the entire time. The race brought out everything in me, both the good and the bad.

These kinds of races are done more with your head than your legs. It was physically difficult as well, of course, but it mostly comes down to your ability to make a deal with yourself. When you want to sit down, you start lying to yourself: let’s run 26 kilometres, then another 30, then some more. I would just talk to myself out loud – move forward, pick up your legs.

A morning jog is the easiest way to start doing something new, and it might change your entire life

Running is my type of creativity. It’s my way of understanding the world and expressing myself. Some people draw or dance, but I run. When I run, I throw aside the office clothes, put on my gym shoes, and feel like an athlete. I have a goal and a trainer. We try to achieve something together, which I couldn’t do one or two years ago. Now I know that I can run 42, or even 86, kilometres, and there aren’t a lot of people who can say that. This gives you a certain sense of confidence.  

A New Year – A New Resolution – A New Life

A morning jog is the easiest way to start doing something new, and it might change your entire life. And I recommend not putting it off until the spring. The New Year is the perfect time to make changes in your life. Try it out and I’m certain that in three months, when you complete your first 5K in Moscow’s Gorky Park or run 21 kilometres at the Parc Floral de Paris, you’ll proudly declare, ‘I did it!’

It’s more difficult to start running in the winter if you’re a new runner, as it can be quite stressful running in the freezing cold. But you can go to a track – a lot of them are open for people who don’t have trainers. My favourite one is called ‘Moskvich.’ It’s better to start with shorter runs – one kilometre, walking when necessary. It might be easier to start if you think about how it will help you lose weight, but this is oftentimes a weaker and shorter-lived source of motivation. Like any experienced runner will tell you: ‘We lose weight to run faster; we don’t run to lose weight.’

This is why it’s best to set a specific goal – a race, for example. There are tons of resources with information about different types of running events. You don’t have to go to a marathon right away necessarily. Your objective should be personally meaningful, something you want to tell your friends about and share on social media.

When I moved from Pskov to Moscow after high school, I thought I’d be the best here; after all, I had won a gold medal and various prizes at Olympiads. But when I moved into my dorm, I realised that there are prize-winners and medallists everywhere you turn. Everyone has something from their past that they’re proud of, and you have to prove you’re the best

Another piece of advice is to first and foremost find a good trainer. This is an excellent source of motivation since the trainer sets up the right training regimen and adjusts it accordingly. But the main thing is that a trainer teaches you how to run correctly, which helps you avoid injuries. 

HSE, Running, and Discipline

Running, like any type of sport, requires an iron will and a certain sense of self-discipline that HSE is very good at developing in its students. Here, no one is running behind you; you either learn or you don’t. And when I think about whether or not I’d have gone to a different university if I had the chance, I know that the answer would be no. I’d go to HSE again in a heartbeat because it really trains you. When I moved from Pskov to Moscow after high school, I thought I’d be the best here; after all, I had won a gold medal and various prizes at Olympiads. But when I moved into my dorm, I realised that there are prize-winners and medallists everywhere you turn. Everyone has something from their past that they’re proud of, and you have to prove you’re the best.

At HSE, students take exams four times a year, and your exam scores are factored into an overall ranking. When after my first set of exams I was only ranked 35th, I was really upset on the one hand, but it served as a good source of motivation on the other. I didn’t like being ranked in the middle. I wanted to be first, and after junior year I was always in the top ten. I was even ranked first for a period of time. HSE also turned me into a fighter in a certain sense. I feel very comfortable in a competitive environment. And even though the other students and I always got along, I was always happy to rise higher and be better. I always wanted to be independent, and like many law students at HSE, I started working when I was a junior. I now work at the law office of Egorov Puginsky Afanasiev & Partners, where I deal with antimonopoly legislation. By the way, the Federal Antimonopoly Service recently organised a run ‘For Honest Competition’ that I participated in.  

Work and Sport

I got really lucky in that my colleagues understand my passion. Especially after I won the title of the fastest lawyer in Moscow in Legal Run on Lawyers Day. (By the way, there were a lot of people from HSE there.) They never keep me late at work if there’s no particular need, and my boss knows what days I run. He roots for me, and calls to ask how my run went. Also, three people from our company have started running as well. 

We are stronger than we think we are, and fatigue and the like are just things we allow ourselves to feel

Running Is About Competing with Yourself

Though it’s really nice to win, running is still not about dominating other people. My main competitor is myself. This year, at a sports clinic that tests runners, something very telling happened. I got to the test, where they put sensors on me and made me run on a treadmill. The doctor asked me what my marathon record was. I said 3:07. I saw how inspired he became, and it was as if he decided to set a new record for the treadmill. Before the test I said I would run three kilometers and this would be enough. And as the treadmill gradually accelerated, I ran and looked at the kilometer counter. I saw that I was approaching the third kilometer. It was boring, difficult, and the treadmill was getting faster and I refused to run any further. The treadmill stops, and I see how disappointed the doctor is. He asked why I stopped. I could have kept running. I told him I got tired. But the blood test showed that I could have run more and more. My pulse hadn’t even reached its maximum. I was upset when I left the hospital, but I knew something important – I can stop whenever I feel like it’s time to stop. And I can do more; I just don’t know it. We are stronger than we think we are, and fatigue and the like are just things we allow ourselves to feel.

Before I started running, I had a low opinion of myself, but now I know that I’m actually capable of much more than I think

This was a few weeks before my first marathon in Boston in 2015. I really wanted to finish in less than three hours. I told my coach this, and he was surprised. He laughed and said 3 hours 5 minutes was the maximum. I controlled my pace really well, running and understanding that no one knows my limits and that I can be stronger, faster, etc. As a result, I ran the marathon in 2 hours and 59 minutes, which I was extremely happy about.

So why am I telling you this story? Before I started running, I had a low opinion of myself, but now I know that I’m actually capable of much more than I think. And I am always trying to test my limits.

This confidence extends into other aspects of my life as well. I deal with failure much better, and it seems like I live a more balanced life. I compare a lot of things at work to marathons. Yes, now it’s difficult, but it’s like a 30-kilometer marathon: you just have to recharge your batteries and push on, and it will be easier in 10 kilometers. Then you run faster for 2 kilometers and there is a much deserved finish line. And this works. I remember that I can handle anything; the main thing is believing in yourself and loving what you do.

I have big plans for next year – a marathon in Kazan, one in Chicago, where I plan to improve my 2.54.42 result. I’d also like to take part in trail-running events and perhaps in a swim-run. Hope everything works out!

By Liudmila Mezentseva